Pa. Turnpike faces dire financial, structural problems, audit finds

    Automobiles drive into the Fort Washington Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (AP, file)

    Automobiles drive into the Fort Washington Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (AP, file)

    Pennsylvania’s auditor general is painting a no-win picture with his most recent audit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

    While Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the turnpike is doing well when it comes to controlling spending and managing its money, he said Tuesday structural problems could eventually lead to the collapse not only of the turnpike, but also of much of the state’s transportation system.

    Since 2007, state law has required the turnpike to send $450 million annually to the state Department of Transportation. PennDOT then uses that money to support mass transit.

    To keep that up through 2022, after which the payment drops to $50 million, the turnpike is counting on some unrealistic forecasts, DePasquale said.

    “They’re relying on the ability to make their payments on increasing tolls by 215 percent and increasing ridership by 44 percent,” he said. “There’s just no way that’s going to work.”

    DePasquale said it is especially unrealistic given the fact that the turnpike has cut back on construction and maintenance. He anticipated that motorists will find other routes.

    Not only could that put the turnpike further into debt, it could overload state highways not intended to carry such high volumes of cars and trucks.

    “If they fall apart financially, it’s going to have disastrous consequence for the entire state,” DePasquale said.

    Turnpike officials did not returns calls for comment on the audit, but they have said in the past that raising rates and borrowing money are necessary just to pay its PennDOT bill.

    Payments to PennDOT drop to $50 million in 2023, which DePasquale called a light at the end of the tunnel.

    “However, it could mean darker days for the entire commonwealth as the dollars that are critical for public transit agencies simply won’t be there because it will be an economic, and to be blunt, human disaster, if we don’t these viable public transit agencies all over Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said.

    He said the turnpike should not be be responsible for the additional $400 million. The Legislature should find a solution, he said.

    In the short term, DePasquale called on lawmakers to pass laws that would help the turnpike collect $43 million in unpaid tolls annually. Currently, the turnpike can send a bill to a motorist who avoids a toll by driving through the EZ-Pass gate but does not have a transponder. However, there is no mechanism in state law to force the payment.

    Other states require skipped toll payments from motorists before they can renew their registration.

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